We have become sadly all too familiar with the barbaric acts of the group ISIS that involve killing innocent people in terrible ways. Arun Gupta describes how that group became the new face of evil.
By the time Hussein was dispatched in December 2006 after a show trial and botched execution, Washington had found a new face of evil in the form of religiously motivated resistance to the Occupation. The shift was remarkable. The enemy seamlessly transitioned from Hussein, whose roots were as a modernist authoritarian socialist, to al-Qaeda offshoots, which tend to be medieval fundamentalists.
This shift reveals how all sides in the “war on terror” use propaganda to shape the perception of the war and even the battlefield itself. Propaganda, though, is a one-way question for the West where commentators obsess over media produced by the Islamic State. Often referred to as ISIS, the extremist group regularly releases videos of mass beheadings, immolations, and parading prisoners in cages.
ISIS has honed an image at once terrifying, effective, dedicated, and vengeful. It uses it to draw recruits from the West, financing from wealthy Gulf State patrons, and the allegiance of militants from Egypt to Indonesia. But ISIS’s real skill is in exploiting power vacuums in Iraq, Syria, and Libya resulting from Western intervention and weak sectarian states. Likewise, its propaganda is a reflection of and response to the West, mainly the atrocities the United States has inflicted upon Iraq and other countries in the region.
Of course, this is not a contest of equals. The United States is a global power, and ISIS is little more than a paper tiger. Analyst Gary Brecher notes ISIS has a relatively small fighting force with little ability to defeat a conventional army, which is how nearly all wars are won, or govern a population, which is how the peace is secured.
It seems like the Somalia-based group al-Shabaab, linked to al Qaeda, has decided to challenge ISIS for the dubious title of the face of evil with such acts as a murderous rampage at a university in Kenya that left 147 people, mostly young women, dead.
On the surface, such brutality might seem counter-productive. Classical guerrilla warfare was seen primarily as a battle for the hearts and minds of people, persuading the local populace that the insurgent forces were on their side, their protectors, and worthy of being aligned with. These murderous acts would seem to be a sure way of alienating the population. You might be able to instill fear in them so that they don’t oppose you, at least publicly, but you are unlikely to win their allegiance.
But it may be that the calculation has changed because of sheer numbers involved. If these groups can persuade Muslims that they are under a global attack by the Christian west and they are seeking recruits to fight back, then this strategy might make sense. While such barbaric acts will cause most Muslims to peel away in disgust, and there is some evidence that this is happening, the catch is that when you are talking about a global Muslim population of about 1.6 billion, you only need a minuscule fraction of people who are willing to overlook such acts, or even welcome them, to get the small numbers of recruits they need to fight what is after all a regional conflict. As long as they have a sufficient number of fighters, they can afford to alienate the general Muslim population as long as they can be intimidated into remaining on the sidelines. They may well have calculated that the odds are in favor.
As I have written before, one reason for such acts might be to goad the west, particularly the US, into getting more involved in a war in that region to reinforce that idea that this is a Christian war on Islam. To his credit, despite his continuing drone and other acts of warfare in that region, president Obama has at least resisted talking in those terms and has been much criticized by the warmongers and Islamophobes for doing so. But given the way that warhawks in the US have been hysterical about ISIS and acting like at any moment they will invade the US and start beheading people in Kansas, it seems like we are just one new major brutality away from seeing that happen.